Suffering from chronic pain can really diminish a person’s quality of life. Whatever its intensity, when you experience it every day, it can really affect your emotional and mental wellbeing. Chronic pain isn’t a medical condition itself, but it’s a very common symptom of an array of medical conditions, which is what makes it so common.
Prescription medications are what healthcare professionals usually give their patients, but these pain medications aren’t well tolerated by everyone and can even cause dependence. That’s where the cannabis plant comes into play.
The medical use of cannabis has been talked about a lot in recent years. It’s being increasingly used as medical marijuana in states where it’s legal as a treatment for symptoms of various medical conditions – including chronic pain. Therefore, today we’ll talk about what chronic pain is and how marijuana can help.
What Is Chronic Pain?
Simply said, chronic pain is a kind of pain that is ongoing and lasts for more than six months, even after a medical condition or an injury has gone away. This is most often due to pain signals that have remained in the nervous system for months, or even years after the treatment.
Chronic pain is also common for people who have certain underlying medical conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, IBDs, low back pain, and others.
Generally, there are three types of pain:
- Nociceptive (inflammatory) pain – caused by tissue damage, usually an injury;
- Neuropathic pain – arises from nerve damage caused by an injury or a disease where the nerves send inaccurate pain signals to certain body sites (eg. diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s);
- Central pain – most often caused by a dysfunction of the nervous system where the pain signals are amplified and felt throughout the body (eg. fibromyalgia).
What Are the Health Effects of Marijuana?
Besides having psychoactive effects, marijuana also has some medical benefits. People in the past have been aware of the health effects of marijuana, which is why it has been used for treating a variety of ailments for thousands of years.
Today, we only know a fraction about the medicinal use of cannabis and we’re aware that there’s still so much left to learn. But from what we’ve discovered so far, cannabis can be very effective in managing the symptoms of many conditions.
The cannabis plant has anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), anti-convulsant, and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties. It can also reduce nausea and induce appetite, as well as promote an improved mood and reduce stress.
What causes these health effects are the active ingredients found in marijuana that work synergistically to produce the unique effects.
How the Active Ingredients in Cannabis Can Bring Pain Relief
Marijuana has hundreds of compounds, but the most important active ingredients are the cannabinoids and terpenes that work together to create the unique effects of this plant.
There are many types of cannabinoids in marijuana of which THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are found in the largest concentrations and are the most studied ones. THC is the psychoactive compound that gets you high, while CBD is non-psychoactive and has anti-inflammatory and calming effects.
Marijuana and the Endocannabinoid System
When you consume marijuana, the cannabinoids start attaching to the cannabinoid receptors, namely CB1 and CB2, located in various locations throughout the body.
The receptors are part of the body’s own endocannabinoid system which is a biological network that plays a major role in maintaining balance in the body. When something is off, the body produces its own cannabinoids called endogenous cannabinoids that bind to the receptors and restore balance.
The cannabinoids in marijuana are very similar to the endogenous cannabinoids, which is why they attach to the receptors so easily. The CB1 receptors are found in the central nervous system where pain signals are processed. The CB2 receptors are located in the peripheral nervous system and the immune cells.
When the cannabinoids attach to the cannabinoid receptors, they modify their function which results in the medical and recreational effects cannabis is known for.
Medical Marijuana Card for Chronic Pain
The legalization of medical marijuana has changed the game immensely in some states. Medical marijuana specialists are freely prescribing medical marijuana treatment to patients for different pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, nerve pain (neuropathy), muscle spasticity, and others.
In states where medical marijuana is legal, patients can obtain a medical marijuana card which is a legal identification card that enables them to get a prescription for marijuana use from a healthcare professional. There is a list of different qualifying conditions for each state, but chronic pain is included in most because it’s such a common condition.
Medical Marijuana Safety and Side Effects
Like all medications, marijuana can cause some side effects. This is mostly due to THC, the psychoactive compound, which can cause increased anxiety and paranoia, faster heartbeat, drowsiness, dry mouth, and short-term memory and concentration problems.
These side effects largely depend on the strain, dosage, and the method of consumption, as well as the person’s individual tolerance. Some people are less tolerant than others, but the body becomes more resilient with time.
You should also know that marijuana, CBD in particular, can react with certain classes of medications. In this case, you should look for the grapefruit label on the medication or consult with a healthcare provider in order to avoid any contraindications.
How Does Marijuana Compare to Opioids for the Treatment of Chronic Pain?
Opioids/opiates are powerful painkillers that work by acting on the nervous system. They can be effective, but they’re also very addictive and can cause withdrawal symptoms, as well as some side effects.
Opioids are very commonly prescribed in the U.S., which has led to an increased misuse and addiction to opioids, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “opioid epidemic.”
Medical marijuana is a nice alternative for pain management because it offers relief without any heavy side effects, and it’s generally much better tolerated. In fact, a 2017 survey showed that medical marijuana users found marijuana alone more effective than both opioids and as a complementary treatment to opioids.
Medical Marijuana Can Be Used In Many Forms
Medical marijuana can be used in many forms, depending on your needs, tolerance, and preference.
Inhalation is by far the fastest-acting method because the cannabinoids get delivered directly in your bloodstream through your lungs.
Oral ingestion such as lozenges and sublingual administration of oils is another fast-acting method. Ingesting edibles that need to go through the digestive system, like brownies, gummies, and even capsules will provide longer-lasting relief, but will also take longer to kick in.
Finally, topicals, such as creams and balms, can also provide you with fast-acting local pain relief.
What Strains Are the Best for Chronic Pain?
There is a vast number of cannabis strains belonging to the three basic groups: Indicas, Sativas, and hybrids. Indicas are known to have more sedative and relaxing effects, and generally have a higher CBD content, while Sativas are more energizing and have higher THC levels. Hybrids are a blend of the two, with more balanced effects.
That being said, when choosing a marijuana strain, you should always pay greater attention to the CBD (cannabidiol) to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) ratio rather than the strains themselves because the ratio gives you more information about the effects you’ll get.
Some THC dominant strains are Original Glue, Mimosa, and Wedding Cake, while CBD dominant strains include ACDC, Charlotte’s Web, and Sour Tsunami. If you want a hybrid with combined effects, you can try Cannatonic, Pennywise, or Canna-Tsu. The budtender in the medical dispensary can give you even more information about specific strains that can help with chronic pain relief.
Conclusion – Marijuana Is a Good Alternative to Heavier Pain Killers and It’s Better Tolerated
Marijuana is a multifaceted plant and thankfully, its health effects are starting to be more widely recognized. There is still a lot we have to learn, but anecdotal evidence has shown that many people have found relief for their chronic pain. Additionally, marijuana is much better tolerated than heavier pain medications, which is a big plus. If you’re considering using medical marijuana as a treatment and live in a state where it’s legal, consult with a medical professional in your area.
Piper, B. J., Beals, M. L., Abess, A. T., Nichols, S. D., Martin, M. W., Cobb, C. M., & DeKeuster, R. M. (2017). Chronic pain patients’ perspectives of medical cannabis. Pain, 158(7), 1373–1379. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000899